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pronounced: BEE-tuh vul-GAR-iss SIK-luh group
(Amaranthaceae – the amaranth family)
Common names: Silver Beet, Chard
Beta was the Latin word for the beet plant; vulgaris is Latin, common, ordinary, every-day. This is a leafy green vegetable often used in Mediterranean cooking, now becoming increasingly popular in Australia. The plant has been bred to have highly nutritious leaves at the expense of the root, which is normally the most nutritious part of beets. Both silver beet and beetroot (Beta vulgaris Crassa group) are cultivated descendants of the sea beet, Beta vulgaris ssp. maritima, that grows wild on the seashores of southern Britain, through Europe and Asia to the East Indies. Silver beet comes from the Portuguese and Spanish coasts, and the islands of the Mediterranean. It was taken from there to England, and in due course found its way to Australia.
This is a biennial herb. In the wild, it grows leaves in the first season after germination, and produces seeds in the second. When it is grown as a vegetable crop, it is treated as an annual, being picked in the first season before it can go to seed. It thrives in a very wide range of climates, from tropical to cold temperate. The leaves, which may be smooth or crinkled, vary in colour from dark green to deep red; in general, the paler the leaf colour, the milder the leaf flavour. The stalks may be white, red, pink, orange or yellow. The roots are conspicuously swollen at their junction with the stem. A flowering stalk 120–180 cm tall is produced in the second year from the top of the tuber; the flowers are small and numerous in a tall open panicle. The fruit is an aggregate of 2 or more fruits forming an irregular dry body.
Silver beet can be sown directly into the garden, or transplanted.
In Australia silver beet is grown as a leaf vegetable. The leaves are cooked and eaten like spinach, while the stems may be cooked like celery. The seedlings can also be served in salads.
In folk medicine, a decoction is prepared from the seeds of any of the species groups as a remedy for intestinal tumors, and from the seeds for genital tumors. The juice from most parts of the plant are said to help with tumors, leukemia and other forms of cancer. In former times, beet juice was used to treat anaemia and yellow jaundice, and was put into the nostrils to purge the head, to clear ringing ears, and to soothe toothache. Beet juice in vinegar was used to treat dandruff, and to prevent falling hair. Culpepper, in The Complete Herbal (1653) recommended the juice of the white beet for headaches and vertigo, as well as for “affections of the brain”.
Not only has silver beet become a popular human food, but it is also popular with a great number of caterpillars, including:
• the Beet Webworm Spoladea recurvalis;
• the Green Cutworm Neumichtis saliaris;
• the Black Noctuid Neumichtis nigerrima;
• the Beet Armyworm Spodoptera exigua;
• the Bogong Moth Agrotis infusa;
• the Australian Cabbage Looper Chrysodeixis subsidens;
• the Tobacco Looper Chrysodeixis argentifera;
• Agrotis porphyricollis, whose larvae stay underground during the day, and emerge at night to feed.
Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.
Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2012
Page last updated 14th March 2018